Axing Staff Voices in a Time of Crisis: An Update On Proposed Governance Reforms

It was very encouraging to see so many members at the UCU open meeting on 10th June, and, further to the governance discussion at that meeting, we felt we should restate why currently there is a real risk that in the autumn there will be only one academic member of Council. This risk is arising at a time when, at Royal Holloway, as at many HE institutions, financial models are being produced which propose significant numbers of staff being made redundant. Any redundancy proposals will need to be signed off by Council as the governing body.

The problem over council membership will arise because one elected member, Liz Schafer, is coming to the end of her period of office, having served two consecutive terms of 3 years. Another elected member, Bob Fitzgerald, is coming to the end of his first term of office of 3 years. He may not be able to stand for election again because the current governance proposals seek to abolish elections. However, unless an election is held, it does not seem possible for a new academic member to join Council in time for potential redundancy discussions in the autumn, simply because there is not time to work through the proper procedures for changing the statutes. Will, therefore, staff elections to Council be guaranteed this summer, and for the full term as clearly set out in College statutes?

The new Chair of Council, Dame Margaret Hodge MP, has stated that she is uncomfortable with staff electing members of the College’s governing body, and wishes to end a right that has existed since Royal Holloway’s founding.

The procedures

While there is plenty to be positive about in the governance reform proposals, the proposed changes in Council membership pose serious questions with as yet no convincing answers, and they require an alteration to the College statutes. The first step in this alteration process would be two meetings of Council where a vote on a special resolution to change the statutes would be made (see article 7 of the RHUL founding Act). The next step – submission to Privy Council – also requires evidence of consultation with stakeholders. Currently, there is scant evidence of any consultation.

With no open discussion so far, significant changes are being proposed regarding the stake staff have in the College, at a time when all of us are being asked to deliver more. Royal Holloway’s Council risks becoming one of the least representative of leading UK universities. Is that the type of institution we should aspire to be?

What has happened since the 1 June blog written by concerned Academic Board members

On 3 June, the governance proposals were discussed at the end of a meeting of Academic Board (AB). Considerable opposition was expressed both to the reduction in academic members of staff and to the proposed change that RHUL will move from electing academic and professional service members of Council to a system of appointment after interview (by two lay members of Council, plus the Deputy Principal who acts as College Secretary). Despite AB’s opposition – no one spoke in favour of the proposals and the Teams chat board indicates a wide range of opposition – this was not reported to Council which met on 4 June. At the end of this long meeting, Liz Schafer asked for the opposition to be acknowledged; the Principal downplayed this opposition stating that a ‘vocal minority’ only had expressed dissent.

Last time statutes were changed, a whole range of stakeholders were consulted, including the three campus trades unions. Moreover, in the interests of transparency and due process, a Steering Group published its minutes and papers. In our view, completely ignoring the opposition expressed at AB does not constitute ‘consultation’.

What can you do?

As we are unlikely to be attending AB in future (as we may no longer be elected members of Council who sit on AB), we are asking members to consider writing to the Principal, their Heads of Department, and/or to Chair of College Council (via secretariat at rhul.ac.uk) expressing views on the possibility of there being only one academic member of Council in the autumn; to request meaningful consultation on ending the right of academic staff to elect representatives to Council, their governing body and employer; and to discuss this situation with non-UCU colleagues so that they too are aware of what is at stake.

Liz Schafer
Bob Fitzgerald

Unannounced proposal to radically change staff membership of RHUL College Council

Proposals for radical change were sent to Academic Board members at the last minute.

On the Friday before the next Academic Board, members received some late papers to add to the (approximately) 500 pages already received. So it would have been easy to miss the fact that one of them was titled “governance”.

From this paper, we learned that the recent Council Effectiveness Review included the proposal that the number and process of appointment of staff members to Council be altered. As members of Academic Board we have approached the local branch of UCU to ask that it publicise this proposal on its blog, as we feel there may be many members of staff who are dismayed by such a proposal.

Given this proposal had already been discussed at Council, it can’t have taken a huge amount of work to prepare the documentation. So we can only wonder why it was given such a low priority.

What do the College Statues say?

The current membership of Council is laid out on the College statutes:

Statute 3:3

The Council shall consist of twenty-five individuals who shall be the charity trustees of the College as follows:

3.1 Sixteen Independent Members who shall be appointed by the Council in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders. The Independent Members shall always form the majority of the membership of the Council;
3.2 Three Members of Academic Staff who shall be elected in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders;
3.3 Three Members of Non-Academic Staff who shall be elected in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders;

The Statutes also stipulate that a staff member of Council, academic or non-academic, must be elected to the position. It is an honour to be elected to Council by one’s peers, and the list of elected Council members includes many long standing and committed colleagues. Changing the Statutes to reduce staff representation and/or to change the method of selection would require the agreement of Privy Council, a process which will require money that could be better spent at this time.

The proposal put to Academic Board

The current number of academic staff seats on Council is three, as is the number of seats for non-academic staff members. The proposal argues that the membership of Council is too large and that we should reduce the academic and non-academic elected members from three per category to two per category. The proposal also argues that as independent members are appointed following an interview process, the same appointment process should be used for staff representatives.

It also suggests that moving to a process of appointment, “the candidate pool will widen, and Council will also be able to appoint members with skills which are required on Council”.

The concerns of some members of Academic Board

Retaining a robust representation of staff who provide education, engage in research, interact with students and conduct the core professional functions of the College is of fundamental importance to the effective consideration of the current and future success of this College. It is of vital importance that the student and staff experiences at RHUL be brought to forefront of the productive scrutiny of the governance of College. This is particularly key given the evolving COVID-19 context, with its challenging economic and welfare implications for current and future students and staff at Royal Holloway.

As members of Academic Board, we are particularly concerned that whilst focusing on maintaining financial viability, the University maintains high academic standards and matches them with prioritising the welfare of students and staff. Members of the Senior Management Team have, by definition, less contact with students and staff (except in a managerial role). Independent members of Council have many strengths, but they lack contact with key stakeholders of the College other than Senior Management.

The members of Council are collectively the charity trustees of the College, responsible for the good governance and management of the College; it is through Council that the powers of the College are executed and delegated. These include:

1.3 apply the principles of justice and fairness to employment policies and procedures;
1.4 promote equality of opportunity, diversity, dignity at work and good working relations.

Moreover the Council retains ultimate responsibility for all matters affecting the appointment, employment, remuneration, superannuation, and conditions of service of members of academic staff.

Changing the make-up of the Council and removing any elected staff element is a substantial change in our terms and conditions of employment. It is also a transformation in our relationship with the institution. All elements of the longstanding vision of staff, students and the Council as partners in a joint enterprise could thus be replaced by a narrow system of appointment.

We believe that the idea of moving from elected staff members to selective appointments is profoundly undemocratic. This change, and the reduction in the number of staff members on Council from 6 to 4, is likely to make the institution weaker rather than stronger, and render it less effective in serving the interests of its students and staff. Given that it was not long ago that the College was looking for “trusted staff” to ask questions in open staff meetings, we believe this strikes a worrying tone. If we truly want a harmonious appointment process for Council, it would be far better to consider the election of all independent members by staff and students. This would allow us to diversify our independent members.

What can you do if you are concerned about this proposal?

There is so little time before the Academic Board of 3 June 2020 that staff have only a very limited opportunity to discuss the proposal with colleagues on Academic Board. We are also clearly hampered as remote working means we no longer bump into colleagues on campus, which would normally allow for a more “natural” discussion of this proposal. Any colleagues with concerns on this matter may wish to email the Principal at Paul.Layzell at rhul.ac.uk so he is made aware of their reservations.

This article was submitted to RHUL-UCU for publication by concerned members of Academic Board.